If you want to be Mexican-American, all you need to do is like Selena and conchas. That’s it. Some of you might be halfway there. Liking (or pretending to like) the former is easy—type her name on YouTube, click the first video, and say, “UGH! I LOVE SELENA!” as if you had seen her performance at the Astrodome, one month before her death in 1995 and three years before your birth. Do this in front of your friends, and half of your “Mexican Card” materializes in your back pocket. Liking the latter is a little harder (even though everyone falls in love at first bite)—you have to get up, sit in a car or a train or a wagon and head to your local (or not so local) Mexican bakery. Hope to God that the small shell-shaped pastry—la concha—sits in a stainless steel tray. If you happen to find it, break this bread with your friends, and no one can deny your Mexicanness.
However, your Mexican Card has an expiration date. I know mine is about to run out when conversations with my mom are littered with too many “ummm’s” as I search for words in Spanish, or when previously mild foods have a surprising kick, or when I write in English even though I know the words ni le llegan a los tobillos (“don’t even reach the ankles of”) the Spanish ones. Although Selena, and therefore half of the card, can be conjured in a single click, finding the key to the other half, the concha half, tends to be trickier. Finding this iconic Mexican sweet bread in the States is difficult, especially in the very white, non-Mexican-bakery-having city of New Haven, Connecticut.
La Casa, Yale’s Latino Cultural Center, does its best to be a home away from home, with its sponsored dinners and Spanglish-speaking staff. But it doesn’t completely relieve my homesickness. Once, walking into La Casa’s kitchen, I spotted an unmistakable brown bag. The splotches of oil seeping through the paper immediately told me that the concha—the manna of Mexico, the elusive requirement for connecting to home—was inside. I asked my friends Sandra and Fernando where they had found it, and they handed me a plastic business card: Mi Lupita Bakery in Fair Haven, the predominately Latin-American side of the city. The next day, I boarded a bus bound for the panadería, located at 269 Grand Avenue, in an attempt to renew the other half of my Mexican Card.
The small bakery is squeezed between a Mexican tienda de antojitos (“cravings shop”) and POPS Grocery Store, which sells winning lottery tickets (its window brags, “WE SOLD A $5000 WINNER”). Stickers of La Virgin de Guadalupe and another Catholic saint deck the bakery’s windows. Typically, in Mexican Catholic imagery, chubby angels hold up the saints, but these windows are different. Below the saints, where angels should be, stand mountains of bread.
When I visited for the first time, it struck me that the bread sold here isn’t just any bread. It’s holy.
My American ears preemptively expected a bell or an electronic ding-dong. Instead, laughs and conversations—people saying hello, trading words of admiration, compadre and comadre, all in Spanish—greeted me as I approached the front counter. It didn’t sound like a bakery. It sounded like a home.
Under a single naked light bulb, two humble stacks of bread flanked the room—brown savory breads to my left, colorful sweet breads to my right. I peered around the corner and saw several women sitting around a metal table. One of them acknowledged me and mimed that I should grab a tray and tongs. I reached into the stack of bread to my right and picked out a couple of conchas.
A woman came to the counter and rang me up. I handed over a few wrinkled dollars and settled into a chair tucked in the store’s corner. As I ate my bread in seclusion, my entire Mexican Card in hand, I still had the desire to break this invisible boundary, from “A sus ordenes” to “Hola, Óscar,” from customer to friend, from friend to family—at least a second cousin.
Before European colonizers crossed the Atlantic, Mesoamerica had a staple crop. From the tops of the Andes Mountains to the sagging valley of central Mexico, maize defined the Mesoamerican palate. The closest thing to a baked good was the tortilla, a flattened circle of maize dough heated on a clay griddle.
European colonizers brought things with them that Native Mexicans never wanted: a language that was too lisped for Mexicans’ tastes, a few fleets’ worth of blankets seasoned with just enough smallpox, and a new staple crop that these sick, lisping people called trigo: wheat.
Only after the fall of Tenochtitlán and the Aztec Empire did wheat become a viable crop. Juan Garrido, a free African conquistador, brought wheat from the old world. After Garrido helped Hernán Cortés topple the Aztec Empire, he couldn’t find a job in the colony, so he crafted one of his own: he began to plant wheat on a small farm and inadvertently introduced bread-baking to Mexico.
The first Mexican bakeries were open-air markets in plazas outside major buildings like government offices and churches. Native women tucked pieces of bread into wooden baskets and sold their merchandise to passersby. One of the most notable early panaderías was Mexico City’s Plaza Mayor, which became the biggest site of bread sales in the entire country. Women aimed to sell every slice and chunk by the time the church bells rang, when they had to stop selling, cut their losses, and join the crowd inside.
By the 16th century, Mexico had adopted and redefined bread-baking. Mexican bakers began adding indigenous ingredients—like vanilla, sugar cane, corn flour, and cacao—to European bread recipes, creating pan dulce. These sweet pastries came in all shapes, textures, and tastes: from the crispy sugar-glazed cookie called la oreja (“the ear”) to the cinnamon-infused dinner roll topped with two crisscrossing braids of bread and sesame seeds called el pan de muerto (“the bread for the dead”).
Of all these pastries, the shell-shaped concha became the symbol of a new wave of Mexican-Americanness. Today, conchas appear all over websites that have anything at all to do with Mexican-American millennials; designers have turned the bread into earrings and pillows and stickers for fake nails. The concha is the Pumpkin Spice Latte of Mexican-American youth.
The woman in charge of this modern-day Plaza Mayor is Yolanda Guzmán. She is short and stout and has the arms of someone who knows how to cook. Her hair is thick but not particularly curly. Fly-away hairs shoot out from the constraints of her bun. She has round, deep brown eyes with eyelashes coated in what looks like a permanent layer of mascara. Her skin is bronze, and I immediately guess that she is from southern Mexico, near the Yucatán Peninsula. She wears a checkered purple mandil—a rectangular piece of cloth with front pockets that serves as an apron. This is the symbol of Mexican motherhood, Mexican domesticity, and Mexicans not having enough time to tie unnecessary knots.
Yolanda gestured for me to join her in the back, where the kitchen was functioning at full force. Flour coated the surface of a wobbly metallic table dotted with tiny mounds of dough. Yolanda’s son was busy cutting the freshly-mixed dough into portions. He dressed in athleisure—an Adidas tracksuit and a T-shirt. He concentrated on cutting the dough and measured it on an old metallic scale.
In the left-hand corner of the kitchen, next to the old blacktop stove, Yolanda’s sister, Beatriz, wrapped tamales. Steam from a pot of sopa de fideo curled over the stovetop; the smells of tomato paste and yeast did battle in the air. Although I felt comfortable seated in the back, I soon had to dance around the kitchen as people shuffled in and out, and I became more of nuisance than a guest. The hum of the refrigerator took over the kitchen, as determined work silenced all talk. I saw what I had long hoped to see: the making of la concha.
Yolanda took a piece of dough from her son and slapped the lump onto the table. Cupping her hands, she spun the dough in a circle until it flattened. Then she passed the dough to her brother Adolfo, who laid it on wax paper on a steel tray and brushed it with liquid butter. By the time I turned back to watch Yolanda, she had already finished shaping eight of the dough patties that would form the bases of the conchas.
She now held a tortillera—a heavy iron contraption that looked like a waffle maker from antiquity. Lifting the lever, she laid a tiny lump of brown, sugary dough on the machine. She clamped the mouth shut and forced the lever down until the dough mound became a thin pancake, which would become the sweet top of the concha. Adolfo took it and laid it on one of the concha bases on the tray. He then cut three curved lines into the concha’s surface, did this for each concha, and passed the tray to his brother, Alberto, who stood by the oven. Alberto stacked tray upon tray in the oven until it was full.
I was invited to bake bread on Halloween night. In the kitchen, Yolanda, Beatriz, Adolfo, Adolfo’s wife, and Adolfo’s three young children were discussing trick-or-treating plans. The eldest of Adolfo’s children (six years old) was dressed as Iron Man, the middle child (three) as a ladybug, and the smallest (two) as a lion. The kids grabbed a bucket of candy and headed to the front of the shop to share with other children. I wandered deeper into the back, grabbed a black apron, and washed my hands at the sink.
Yolanda stood poised in front of the metal table, her dough ready for me. Unfortunately, no matter how close we get, she’ll never give me her recipe. She explained the one task I was to complete: shaping blobs of dough into smooth balls.
To demonstrate, she grabbed a piece and smacked it against the metal table with a thump, sending up a cloud of flour. She cupped her hands and spun the dough on the table. Within ten seconds, the lump had become a small neat sphere ready for the oven.
On my first try, I struggled. The dough felt foreign in my inexperienced hands, more like Moon Sand, moving slow as goop. When I cupped my hands like Yolanda and moved them in a circle, the table wobbled, as if threatening to collapse. Eventually, the dough began to take form, sticking to itself.
I repeated the process over and over. The dough smelled a bit unpleasant—like a damp newspaper, not like the sweet concha from my childhood. It got hotter the more I spun it. After a few seconds, I could no longer feel the difference between the dough and my palms. But the most surprising thing was that no matter what I did with the dough, it stuck together. Whether I flattened it with my fist, pressing down with my entire body weight, or stretched it as wide as my wingspan, the dough would always find a way to fall back into itself.
Family is sticky like dough. Yolanda’s family hails from Tlaxcala, Mexico, a state that sits just outside the country’s capital. In Tlaxcala, people tend to be shorter and browner and look more like the people who inhabited the country before the Europeans came. As a child, Yolanda loved traveling with her family to sell bread all over the country, in cities like Mexico City, Puebla, and Guanajuato. Bread meant mobility, both spatial and economic.
Now, Yolanda presides over her own bakery as matriarch, the head of a business with a long tradition, surrounded by her siblings and her only son. It occurred to me that though her family has changed, at its core, it will always be the same: no matter how it looks, whether tragedy tries to flatten it or whether distance tries to stretch it, it will always tend toward itself—it will always stick. And as Yolanda kneads her dough in her small bakery in Connecticut, her family in Mexico kneads its own.
Yolanda left to go trick-or-treating with the kids. I sat in a foldable chair behind the metal table where I had rolled the balls of dough. Beatriz, Yolanda’s sister, began stacking the layers of a tres leches cake, squirting condensed milk into the spongy bread from a bottle. I had tried to get to know Yolanda better by asking questions, but she tended to glaze over everything with a layer of sweetness—everything was bien or bueno or sí.
Beatriz didn’t glaze things over as much. She asked about my family: my sisters, my parents, whether or not they were hardworking or smart, and whether or not I liked them. She followed the tangent with, “Sorry if I’m asking too many questions.” I said it was fine. I knew I was about to return the favor.
Beatriz told me many things about her sister: Yolanda is hardworking and caring and humble. She is more like her mother than her father. And, above all, she is generous: “No tiene mucho pero sabe dar.” She doesn’t have much, but she knows how to give.
I had experienced this first-hand. Yolanda would never let me leave without a free bag of fresh bread. She always offered me sopa de fideo and tamales despite my repetitive Ya comí’s (“I already ate”). I soon learned to visit on an empty stomach.
I asked whether or not they planned to make an altar for Día de los Muertos. She said, “Sí y no.” They wouldn’t make a huge traditional altar, adorned with pictures of their deceased loved ones. They would simply leave a piece of bread and a cup of water. “Para un alma que no tenga donde ir.” For a soul that has no where else to go.
As I left the bakery on Halloween night, I peered at the pastry trays and didn’t see any conchas. Beatriz said they had sold out. On the street, I couldn’t shake the smell of yeast and flour. I had found a home not in the concha nor in the bakery—maybe not even in Yolanda’s family—but in the baking of the bread. Identity, I thought to myself then, cannot be encapsulated and consumed. It has to be made.
There is a Mexican saying that all Mexican people have cacti on their foreheads. It’s not as painful as it sounds: it just means that Mexicans can recognize each other. The people who dreamed that up probably never baked a piece of bread in their lives. I’d like to think that all Mexicans have the smell of a panadería stuck in their nostrilsnoses, the smell of flour and yeast clinging to their nose hairs. When you least expect it, the smell returns and lingers like a ghost and urges you to look for your home.